Alatau and James Michener’s Mr Blake

In 1959, to mark Hawaii’s attainment of full US statehood, James A Michener, the novelist and author of the Broadway hit South Pacific, published his blockbuster novel Hawaii, which has since sold tens of thousands of copies. One of the most intriguing characters in the book is called Uliassutai Karakorum Blake, portrayed as a strict schoolmaster whose influence on his pupils was huge. This unusual name is clearly inspired by that of Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, Thomas and Lucy Atkinson’s son[i].

Alatau Atkinson was born in eastern Kazakhstan in 1848, spent his first five years travelling with his parents through Siberia and Central Asia and eventually, at the age of 21, emigrated with his wife and first of seven children from England to Hawaii, where he died in 1906.

In the essay below Marianne Simpson – a direct descendant of Lucy Atkinson’s brother – explores the character of Michener’s creation and the extent to which it was based on that of Alatau.

Marianne Simpson writes:
That Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson left a lasting impression on Hawaii and popular culture is evident from his inclusion, in the person of Uliassutai Karakoram Blake, in James A Michener’s 1959 novel, Hawaii.

Michener-Hawaii   james-michener

 James A Michener and his blockbuster, Hawaii, published in 1959

While we will never know who Michener’s informant was, his/her tales about Alatau obviously caught Michener’s imagination because he says Blake is the only character in this epic 900-page novel based on an historical person. Michener presents a fascinating and compelling portrait, starting with an account of Alatau’s origins which, despite some factual errors, is clearly recognisable:

“…the ablest hinese] now flocked to Iolani [School] to which Nyuk Tsin [fictional character in the book] now brought her sons. She was met by one of the most unlikely men ever to inhabit Hawaii, Uliassutai Karakoram Blake, a tall, reedy Englishman with fierce moustaches and a completely bald head, even though he was only twenty-eight.His adventurous Shropshire parents had been with a camel caravan heading across Outer Mongolia from the town of his first name to the town of his second when he was prematurely born, ‘jolted loose ere my time,’ he liked to explain, ‘by the rumbling motion of a camel which practically destroyed my sainted mother’s pelvic structure.’ He had grown up speaking Chinese, Russian, Mongolian, French, German and English. He had long ago learned not to try his Chinese on the Orientals living in Hawaii, for they spoke only Cantonese and Punti, and to him these were alien languages, but when Nyuk Tsin spoke to him in Hakka, it sounded enough like Mandarin for him to respond.”

Alatau Atkinson

Alatau’s proficiency in these languages clearly reflects the geography of his early childhood. The knowledge of German however is interesting. Keeping in mind that his father had previously spent time in Germany and that he had a half-brother buried there, did the family perhaps spend an extended time in that country on their way back from Russia to England?

Michener continued his description of Blake: “In later years, when Hawaii was civilised and lived by formal accreditations, no teacher who drifted off a whaling boat one afternoon, his head shaved bald, no credentials, with moustaches that reached out four inches, and with a name like Uliassutai Karakoram Blake could have been accepted in the schools. But, in 1872, when this outlandish man did just that, Iolani needed teachers, and in Blake they found a man who was to leave on the islands an indelible imprint. When the Bishop first stared at the frightening-looking young man and asked, ‘What are your credentials for teaching?’, Blake replied, ‘Sir, I was bred on camels’ milk’, and the answer was so ridiculous that he was employed.”

While the “ridiculous” claim has a ring of truth (and of course makes a great story!), it is unlikely to have formed the full answer because, between 1868 and 1869, before he left for Hawaii, Alatau had served as “third assistant master” at Durham School, a fee-paying school in the north of England with an enrolment of 150 boys.

Durham School2
Durham School

As well as teaching the traditional curriculum for boys destined for university (Classical Greek, Latin, English Prose and Composition and Mathematics), there was also a “modern department” for boys not intended for university which perhaps gave Alatau the broader experience which he was to apply so successfully in Honolulu.

There was also a flourishing boat club which (if he had not had exposure to boating at his old school of Rugby) may have been his initiation into the boating which he was subsequently to recommend to his students at Iolani.

Overall, what we see here is a young man of considerable self-confidence, striking out into foreign lands with seemingly little concern about what he might encounter, but rather an assurance based on a solid belief that he was equal to whatever the challenges.

Michener is silent on Alatau’s career and influence as a newspaper editor and it is indeed possible that he was unaware of it. Rather, he focussed his attention on Alatau’s role as an educator and the enormous benefit he brought to the growing Chinese community (thereby strongly suggesting that his informant was of Chinese origin). He writes:

If Blake had been employed in a first-rate school like Punahou, then one of the finest west of Illinois, it wouldn’t have mattered whether he was capable or not, for after Punahou his scholars would go on to Yale, and oversights could be corrected. Or if the teachers in the school were inadequate, the parents at home were capable of repairing omissions. But at Iolani the students either got an education from the available teachers, or they got none at all, and it was Blake’s unique contribution to Hawaii that, with his fierce moustaches and his outrageous insistence upon the niceties of English manners, he educated the Chinese. He made them speak a polished English, cursing them in pidgin when they didn’t.”

The period of Alatau’s incumbency at Iolani coincided with a significant rise in the Chinese population in Hawaii. The Chinese had first begun to arrive in considerable numbers in 1852, when they were contracted to work in the sugar fields. When their five-year contracts expired, they did not renew them but chose to work in haole (white) households, as clerks or to set up small businesses. By 1882, their number in Honolulu was hovering around 5,000, 20% of the town’s population, and, at one point, they actually outnumbered the white population.

Chinese migrants to Hawaii in the 1890s

Michener continued: “In these years there were many in Hawaii who…did not want Chinese going to college or owning big companies. They were sincerely afraid of Oriental businessmen and intellectuals. They hoped, falsely as it proved, that the Chinese would be perpetually content to work on the plantations without acquiring any higher aspirations, and when they saw their dream proving false…they sometimes grew panicky and talked of passing ridiculous laws, or of exiling all Chinese.

What these frightened men should have done was much simpler: they should have shot Uliassutai Karakoram Blake…When Blake taught the first Chinese boy the alphabet, the old system of indentured labor was doomed…The Chinese experiment might have failed except that Uliassutai Karakoram Blake was quietly teaching his boys: ‘The same virtues that are extolled in China will lead to success in Hawaii. Study, listen to your parents, save your money, align yourselves with honest men.’ Not only did he teach them; he inspired them: “He taught them to sail boats in the harbour, contending that no man could be a gentleman who did not own a horse and a boat. Above all, he treated them as if they were not Chinese; he acted as if they were entitled to run banks, or to be elected to the legislature, or to own land.”

Alatau, who had nothing with which to commend himself apart from his intellect and education and who probably saw parallels between himself and the landless Chinese arriving in Hawaii, counselled his students to conform to the expectations of the dominant culture. Michener records his injunction: “Cut your pigtails and dress like Americans. Join their churches. Forget that you are Chinese.”

One famous student from Iolani School who was to cut his pigtails and convert to Christianity was the first President and founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-Sen.

Sun Yat-Sen

Respecting Sun, Michener wrote: “For his part, the eccentric Englishman found real joy in talking with one of the two people who understood his dynamic interpretation of the world. The other was a thin, hawk-eyed young revolutionary then seeking refuge in Hawaii: Sun Yat-Sen. Even better than Nyuk Tsin, he comprehended what his teacher Blake was talking about.”

It is fascinating to consider that Alatau may have been a preceptor to Sun. Sun, born in 1866, was a student at Iolani School between 1879 and 1882 and, while Alatau appears in the press as being appointed Principal of the Fort Street School in March 1878, the records of Iolani School nevertheless list him as head of school in about 1871 and, again, from 1874 to 1888, so it would appear that he, at the least, remained very much involved in the school and Michener’s claim may accordingly be true.

While at Iolani, Sun was exposed to English constitutional law and European history[ii] and it was at Iolani that he began to consider the possibilities for a better China.  It is interesting that, after his return to China, Sun made several subsequent visits to Hawaii: could they perhaps have included visits to the Atkinson home?

Michener makes the provocative claim that Uliassutai/Alatau was Buddhist. He states unequivocally that the schoolmaster “converted them [his students] to the Church of England while he himself remained Buddhist” and, in response to a boy asking him why he remained such, has Uliassutai/Alatau replying, “When I leave Hawaii, I shall return to England, where freedoms of all kind are permitted.  But you will not leave these islands. You will have to live among Americans, and they despise most freedoms, so conform.” (Unsurprisingly, Michener, an American, describes him as a difficult, opinionated man!)

The statement sounds authentic, but it sits somewhat oddly with Alatau’s later ardent espousal of union with America. Perhaps, over time, as his attachment to and hopes for Hawaii grew, he came to consider the merits of annexation as outweighing the perceived intolerances.

The Buddhist claim is intriguing, especially as Alatau is on record as playing the organ in the Kawaiahao church and St Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral, in which latter place his funeral also took place. If he was at heart Buddhist, could his participation in Christian services have been a case of applying to himself the conformity that he counselled others?

Overall Michener portrays Alatau as a man radiating a powerful and dynamic presence, but also well aware of his own considerable gifts. He is depicted as saying: “The compassionate Buddha knows that at Iolani I have given you Chinese the salt of my blood and the convolutions of my brain, and I have raised you from ignorance into light, and the compassionate Buddha also knows that I wish I had done half as well with my light as you wonderful people have done with yours.  If I had, I wouldn’t now be toiling out the evening years of my life as an underpaid schoolmaster.”

As Alatau later rose to become Hawaii’s Inspector-General of Education, Michener was clearly unaware of his later career but perhaps he nevertheless captured the essence of the man? Michener concluded: “The Chinese loved this ridiculous man and his circumlocutions. With his British regard for proprieties and his Oriental love of bombast, he seemed Chinese.”

In Michener’s portrait, we see a human side to Alatau only occasionally apparent in the numerous press references to him. That he was esteemed by the Orientals was known by his fulsome obituary in the Japanese Hawaiian press.  But that he was the means by which the Chinese ultimately rose to assume positions of prominence in Hawaii, if Michener is correct – and there seems little reason to doubt him – is significant new information and shows him to have been a man with an incisively broad world view well ahead of his times. If any reader has access to the early Chinese Hawaiian press (Lung Kee Sun Bo, Wah Ha Bo, Lai Kee Bo or the Man Sang Yat Po newspapers), a search for an obituary of Alatau or any other reference to him could make a significant contribution to this ongoing area of research.


[i] In the very brief introduction to his book Hawaii, Michener writes: “This is a novel. It is true to the spirit and history of Hawaii, but the characters, the families, the institutions and most of the events are imaginary – except that the English school-teacher Uliassutai Karakoram Blake is founded upon a historical person who accomplished much in Hawaii.”

Alatau’s name comes from the mountain range (the Djungar Alatau) behind the town where he was born and the medicinal spring in the town (Tamchiboulac) close to the house in which Lucy gave birth. Uliassutai is a town in north-west Mongolia, and Karakorum is the old name for Genghis Khan’s capital.

[ii] Alatau is recorded as giving history lectures to the general public.

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